Biofuels not necessarily all that green

Earlier this year, when I crossed our great country to talk to
Canadians about environmental issues, some media pundits took issue
with our vehicle of choice – a diesel bus. Even when I explained that
diesel actually has a lower carbon footprint than gasoline, some of
them immediately shot back with – then why isn’t it biodiesel?

In truth, we had actually wanted to showcase an alternative fuel
like biodiesel, we just couldn’t find a leasing agent who could get us
an appropriate vehicle. But from the very beginning we were also
nervous about highlighting something that might be more of a problem
than a solution.

Turns out, we were probably right. According to a recent analysis published in the journal Science,
attempting to save the planet by wholesale switching to biofuels like
ethanol and biodiesel may unintentionally have the opposite effect.

Proponents of biofuels, which are often made from plants such as
corn or sugar cane, often point to their many advantages over fossil
fuels like gasoline. Biofuels are less toxic or non-toxic in comparison
to fossil fuels. They are a renewable resource, whereas once fossil
fuels are gone, they’re gone. And biofuels can be grown just about
anywhere you can grow crops, reducing the need for giant pipelines or
oil tankers, and potentially helping to reduce conflicts in areas like
the Middle East.

So far so good. But things start to get complicated when you look
more closely. Much has already been debated about the energy
requirements to produce some biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol.
Ethanol made from corn only contains marginally more energy than what
is needed to produce it. In fact, we use about a litre’s worth of
fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process, and transport a litre of
corn-based ethanol. Many people argue that making corn-based ethanol is
more of an agricultural subsidy for farmers than it is a sound
environmental policy.nu003cp>Things get even dodgier for biofuels when you look at the land area that would be needed to grow fuel crops. We use a lot of fossil fuels. Switching to biofuels would not reduce the demand for fuel, just change the way we get it. And that would require a lot of land. In fact, substituting just 10 per cent of fossil fuels to biofuels for all our vehicles would require about 40 per cent of the entire cropland in Europe and North America. That is simply not sustainable.u003c/p>nu003cp>Of course, reducing the amount of fuel we use, no matter what the type, is very important. But the authors of the recent article in Science say that if our primary motive in switching to biofuels is to reduce global warming, then we have to look at all our options for the land that would be needed to grow fuel crops.u003c/p>nu003cp>The authors conclude: "If the prime object of policy on biofuels is mitigation of carbon dioxide-driven global warming, policy-makers may be better advised in the short term (30 years or so) to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve the existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food."u003c/p>nIn other words, biofuels alone are not the quick-fix answer to global warming. In fact, strong legislated policies to improve the efficiency of our cars, homes and industries is a much more effective strategy. In the longer term, biofuels may certainly play an important role. Some technologies, like cellulosic ethanol, which is made from woody debris, are very promising and they need to be supported by government and industry now, so they can be available on a larger scale in the coming years. Biofuels have many advantages, but we have to look at all our options and make sure we make the best choices to ensure a more sustainable future.u003cp>nTake the Nature Challenge and learn more at u003ca hrefu003d”http://www.davidsuzuki.org/” targetu003d”_blank” onclicku003d”return top.js.OpenExtLink(window,event,this)”>www.davidsuzuki.orgu003c/a>.u003cp>n”,1]
);
//–>

Things get even dodgier for biofuels when you look at the land area
that would be needed to grow fuel crops. We use a lot of fossil fuels.
Switching to biofuels would not reduce the demand for fuel, just change
the way we get it. And that would require a lot of land. In fact,
substituting just 10 per cent of fossil fuels to biofuels for all our
vehicles would require about 40 per cent of the entire cropland in
Europe and North America. That is simply not sustainable.

Of course, reducing the amount of fuel we use, no matter what the
type, is very important. But the authors of the recent article in Science
say that if our primary motive in switching to biofuels is to reduce
global warming, then we have to look at all our options for the land
that would be needed to grow fuel crops.

The authors conclude: “If the prime object of policy on biofuels is
mitigation of carbon dioxide-driven global warming, policy-makers may
be better advised in the short term (30 years or so) to focus on
increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve the existing
forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland
habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.”

In other words, biofuels alone are not the quick-fix answer to global
warming. In fact, strong legislated policies to improve the efficiency
of our cars, homes and industries is a much more effective strategy. In
the longer term, biofuels may certainly play an important role. Some
technologies, like cellulosic ethanol, which is made from woody debris,
are very promising and they need to be supported by government and
industry now, so they can be available on a larger scale in the coming
years. Biofuels have many advantages, but we have to look at all our
options and make sure we make the best choices to ensure a more
sustainable future.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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